About six weeks ago I met the Editor of Radio 4’s Today Programme, Ceri Thomas, and we discussed how alcohol and alcohol problems are portrayed in the media.  I told him I thought coverage was too simplistic, but how do you balance the time needed to explain the complexities with the nature of broadcast media, particularly radio news, which needs to be quick and compelling.  Alcohol problems are caused by an unholy cocktail of genes, neurological processes, traumatic life events, social factors, cultural context, psychological mechanisms, and mental illnesses.  To complicate things further, the ingredients of that cocktail are different in every single individual.

Ceri took a risk, and asked me to make a 5-6 minute piece to try and explain the complexities, and I made a package with a producer called Tom Colls.  He knew I’d never done anything like this before, and taught me loads about radio, and loads about how I work.  Our piece was broadcast this morning, and you can listen to it here

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  1. steve March 1, 2013 at 11:27 am

    I heard your piece on alcohol on the Today pro 01.03.13. I thought the package started off really well but then it raised quite a number of issues for me. Firstly why do researchers always end up interviewing the worst case scenarios, and I feel this detracts from the point being raised. People who listen to this will rightly believe that because they don’t have seizures or prostitute to feed their drug consumption then they’re totally fine. In other words the measuring scale always starts at the extreme!
    What I need to see is some research about the silent majority who drink to excess regularly and hold down jobs and families and yet are on many occasions having to justify behaviours to partners, children, work colleagues etc as it’s these people who have the biggest problem, the ones off the radar of police, doctors etc.
    I am an addict and have been clean for almost sixteen years, my mum was an addict and she died through her drug use, mainly alcohol. Like her my using was not instantly uncontrollable to took many years to develop. I have/do work with addicts and their pattern is very similar, they’re at the final stages of addiction. I would argue that some of my clients are not addicts at all and are simply people who use through choice, it is these individuals that resist help and deny their problem, simply because they don’t fit the stereotype created by many researchers, their using does not tick the right boxes. Similarly there are many addicts who are nowhere near the final stages of addiction and these can very easily fit into the non-addict category and again these individuals don’t fit the stereotype.
    I’m assuming you know all this? I’m just curious as to why whenever I hear/watch programmes on addiction we are made to consider unfortunates at rock bottom and somehow equate this as a consequence of uncontrollable drinking, when really the price or availability of the drugs this group of addicts use has absolutely nothing to do with it, these individuals do go to any lengths to get the drug and are therefore nothing to do with the issue of mainstream drug usage which your piece appeared to address.
    Regards, Steve W

  2. Sally March 5, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Dear Steve

    Thanks for your comment. It gave me lots to think about. It might be helpful if before I answer your questions I set out the context of what I was trying to do, and the parameters I had to do it within. Firstly, I had only 5 minutes, and had to come up with something that Today was happy with, as well as something I wanted say. This was the first piece I have ever made for radio, and I had to prioritise what I could do. I had two messages I wanted to leave listeners with. Firstly, alcohol problems are complex and it’s not enough simply to say “it’s a disease” or “it’s a matter of willpower”. Rather, it’s a mixture of genes, environmental influences, along with brain changes caused by alcohol itself. Secondly, and leading on from the first point, I wanted to make the point that we shouldn’t judge people with alcohol problems – everyone has a story about how they ended up where they are, and no-one chooses a life of alcohol dependence. In terms of what we recorded, we did do some interviews with two people who were much more like the clients you describe, and if we had more time, one of these would have been included. However, we had to make a judgement about what was best to include, given the aims of the piece. We included the two interviews we chose because these seemed to best show examples of the complex reasons why people drink, as well as show that people with alcohol problems need support and understanding, not stigma.
    I do think there is another piece to be made, which covers the hidden nature of drink problems, and I may well pitch it to Today and see if they will make it. The goal for that piece would be to discuss firstly how hidden drink problems are, using interviews with people like yourself, plus anonymous people with alcohol problems, and perhaps quoting from some of the completely anonymous sources of help/chat rooms on the internet; and secondly to discuss what sort of people hide their drinking – people living seemingly normal lives, but who are really in trouble, as a result of habitual drinking which has crept up on them. I totally agree that this is a really important area. I am studying for a PhD at the moment, and the population I am looking at do not ask for help, and continue to try and function despite their alcohol problems, often at great cost to their families and those around them. However, I could only do one story for Today, whereas a PhD is three years of study. That doesn’t mean a second story shouldn’t get made or has no value – this is a both/and situation, not an either/or. Hopefully I will get the chance to make a second piece in the future.
    Best wishes, and thanks again. All debate on the topic is a good thing, and I’m pleased you took the time to write.

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